The Groundbreaking Story of the World’s First Talking Dog
By Christina Hunger
Find it on Bookshop
This book has to come with a trigger warning. If you are thinking about getting a dog, this book will 100% push you over the edge. You won’t want to live without one that talks back to you. Just know that going in.
Christina Hunger tells the story of Stella, the world’s first talking dog— how her training as a speech pathologist helped her to see Stella’s existing communication and advance it to human words through recordable buttons on the floor.
As Stella’s fur parent, Christina poured all the love, happiness, and pride from that relationship onto the page. That is Stella’s journey of learning to speak: one of love and support.
I found Stella and Christina through their Instagram, which is definitely worth a follow to see Stella’s buttons in action (@hunger4words).
First some background: Christina works with toddlers who have speech disorders. She spends time with them and teaches them how to communicate using augmentative and alternative communication (AAC). For humans, this often takes the form of a tablet. On the screen, there are buttons the child can press so the tablet plays them aloud. Christina came up with a way to translate this concept in a way that would work for her puppy: prerecorded floor buttons that were a good size for her paw, even as she grew. She trained Stella to associate words with their meanings, and that she would respond to Stella pushing the buttons as if she were speaking herself.
Since I don’t have a dog (yet!) and I don’t want to give all of Christina Hunger’s secrets away (you have to read the whole thing if you want to train your own dog to talk), I’m going to focus on the general communication lessons here.
Patience is key.
You must give the other person (or animal) time to process each thing you say, and to respond in their own way. Think about talking to someone on Zoom. There is always a slight delay and you need to wait slightly longer to speak than you would if you were speaking face to face.
This was the most powerful cue we could give Stella to use one of her words now, simply waiting long enough to give her a real chance to say it. It is so natural for adults to want to jump in and help immediately, or to take over to accomplish something quickly. We have to become comfortable with silence and patience before we can expect to see real, significant progress.
On a larger scale, if you believe in something you are doing, keep doing it. Christina didn’t know if she was going to be able to teach Stella to speak, because no one had ever done it before. After two weeks of Stella showing no interest in the buttons, Christina started to question whether it was a waste of time. She decided to keep going because she believed in Stella’s abilities and her own expertise, and they soon had a breakthrough.
I was completely dedicated to my field of speech therapy and saw a fun opportunity to try it out in a new way. I saw all the reasons why it could be possible. I looked for the possibilities rather than the potential problems. I put faith into my own professional experiences rather than looking at others’ expertise as the gold standard. I put weight into my own ideas instead of what the world thought was possible. I did not have any limiting beliefs stopping me from discovering more.
Verbal speech skills do not represent a person’s intelligence or language abilities.
Communication is more than just words. For instance, joint attention—when two people are focused on the same object or activity— is a more important component than most people realize. It is a way to show a shared interest, and connect with another person through attention.
My graduate school professors instilled the importance of “presuming competence” when working with children who require AAC. Presuming competence means treating from the fundamental understanding that everyone can learn, and everyone has something to say. It is impossible to know a person’s communication potential before they are given the tools and interventions they need to succeed.
Focus on the most important words and concepts.
The first word Christina taught Stella was “outside”. She chose that because it was a commonly-used word in their house. It provided a way for Stella to request to go to the bathroom, but also to play. Soon after “outside” came more words Stella would be excited to use, like “play”, “eat”, “park”, and “beach”.
Social media fame is unpredictable and overwhelming.
An interesting part of the tale was the account of how she was catapulted from 600 to 10,000 followers in a day, then 30,000 overnight. All of a sudden, Christina had to choose how she wanted to use her fame. She had to decide what to say yes to, and what to turn down. She settled on saying no to many things, but yes to a book! (Great decision, Christina).
Pets are truly family members.
Christina and Jake got to the point where they could have a conversation with Stella about what they wanted to do. They each gave their input, and decided as a group. Sometimes it was where Jake and Christina wanted to go, sometimes it was Stella’s choice. Whatever the final decision, Stella was a part of the discussion.
My dad always talked about how once you live with a dog, you cannot go back to life without one. When you are used to a dog’s unconditional love, playful spirit, and companionship, life seems too boring and incomplete without one by your side.
- Patience is key
- Verbal skills do not indicate intelligence
- Focus on key words
- Social media fame is overwhelming
- Pets are family
Ever look at your pet and wonder what they’re thinking? Taking the time to listen to them and give them tools for more complex communication can deepen your relationship and your pet’s entire life experience. This is such a heartwarming story, even if you don’t have a dog (yet). Be careful, you just might have one soon after reading this book.
My dog just invited me to come play with her. How special is that?
Follow Stella and Christina on Instagram at @hunger4words.
Want to read more? Find How Stella Learned to Talk here: Bookshop
The quotes above were gathered using Readwise. It’s a truly amazing app to help you remember what you read. If you want to try it out, use my link and we both get a free month 🙂
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